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What politicians get wrong about war

From Kosovo to Ukraine, Lawrence Freedman’s book Command explores the catastrophes that occur when state and military strategy collide.

By David Reynolds

“When Caesar says ‘Do this’, it is performed.” Mark Antony’s words in the second scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar capture our conventional understanding of what is meant by the word command. That same sense of rigidity is conveyed by the idea of a “chain of command”, down which orders are passed and then obeyed.

For the British historian Lawrence Freedman, however, command should be understood as politics. To make it work requires “a grasp of the informal networks” that ensure effectiveness and “develop mutual trust”. Senior officers, from the commander-in-chief downwards, “learn to appreciate particular individuals for their particular loyalty, but also their initiative and intelligence”. Conversely, “subordinates learn to be wary of superiors who show an inadequate understanding of the circumstances in which they are operating, so that they are asked to undertake impossible, illegal, or potentially suicidal missions”.

In Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine, Freedman illustrates this overall argument through a series of case studies from conflicts over the last 70 years, starting with the Korean War and the US president Harry S Truman’s decision in April 1951 to sack General Douglas MacArthur. Officially this was explained as the result of policy differences, but the essential issue was what Truman called “rank insubordination”: MacArthur had breached the constitutional principle of “civilian control of the military”. This is encapsulated by Freedman in the maxim that “soldiers should not run states and politicians should not tell soldiers how to fight their battles”. His case studies show how unreal that distinction is in practice.

One vivid example comes from the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Many anglophone accounts focus on the mixture of tough action and creative diplomacy that enabled John F Kennedy to reach a peaceful conclusion to a crisis that at times portended nuclear Armageddon. Instead, Freedman takes us down the chain of command, to the problem of “control” when so many “tactical” nuclear weapons – bombs, artillery shells, mines, torpedoes – were in the hands of low-level commanders.

It was standard US procedure to leave key operational decisions to the commander on the spot. But, given the stakes, this did not satisfy Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary, formerly a “whiz-kid” business executive who now wanted to micro-manage the US “quarantine” of Cuba. According to his later account, he cross-examined Admiral George Anderson, the chief of naval operations (CNO), about how a Soviet vessel would be stopped peacefully. Anderson explained that it would be hailed, presumably in English.

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“What if they did not understand English?”

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“International flags would be used.”

“Suppose they don’t stop?”

“We’ll send a shot across the bow.”

“What it they don’t stop then?”

“We’ll put one through the rudder.”

“The damn thing may well blow up.”

According to McNamara, their interchange escalated to his explosion: “There will be no firing of any kind at the Soviet ship without my authority… We’re trying to convey a political message, we’re not starting a war.”

“Mr Secretary,” Anderson had the temerity to reply, “if you’ll keep your fingers out of this situation, we’ll carry it out successfully.”

After the crisis McNamara complained to Kennedy about Anderson’s “insubordination” and the CNO lost his job. Fifty years on this story underlines the abiding challenge of “command and control” in the nuclear age.

Freedman’s case studies range widely. Once the official historian of the Falklands war in 1982, he distils his two volumes on that conflict into a crisp study of the problems of “command in theatre”, when the army, air force and navy have different priorities and the government is acutely sensitive to the politics of public morale and international opinion. There are several chapters on generals who used their control of the armed forces to seize political power, such as Yahya Khan in Pakistan. Freedman is particularly interesting on Saddam Hussein, a revolutionary leader with no military experience, whose totalitarian rule enabled him to “coup-proof” his armed forces – but at the expense of battlefield effectiveness. Yet that same totalitarianism enabled him to survive a catastrophic defeat in Kuwait in 1991 that would have toppled most Western leaders, because he controlled the narrative by which the war was represented at home. “Saddam the political leader could rescue Saddam the military leader.”

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Command and control are particularly difficult when the contrasting perspectives of air, navy and ground commanders are exacerbated by national differences in Nato or UN operations. A classic example of “too many cooks” is Kosovo 1999: the Nato campaign to stop Serbian atrocities against Kosovar Albanians. Its head was General Wesley Clark, the US supreme commander in Europe, who was answerable both to the US president and the Nato secretary-general yet had no forces directly under his control. Clark got into ferocious arguments with General Mike Short, head of the US Air Force in Europe, about the focus for the bombing campaign.

One altercation about which target should be seen as the “jewel in the crown” culminated in Short telling Clark: “You and I have known for weeks that we have different jewellers.” To which Clark replied: “My jeweller outranks yours.” Clark had similar difficulties with the British General Mike Jackson, a veteran paratrooper commanding the small Nato army contingent charged with peacekeeping duties. Clark wanted them to block the runway at Pristina airport to stop possible Russian troop landings. “Sir,” declared Jackson, “I’m not starting the Third World War for you.” Clark again tried to pull rank (four stars to three) but Jackson trumped that by playing the national card and threatening, with London’s backing, to resign.

Several of Freedman’s chapters relate directly to today’s crunch international issue: Russia’s chronic inability to come to terms with its lost empire. An early sign, Freedman shows, was the First Chechen War of 1994-6. Chechnya, in the Caucasus, with a largely Muslim population, broke away from Russia in the dying days of the USSR in 1991 and declared independence. Heavily armed and a haven for gangsters, it became an obsession for Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president. His invasion in December 1994 had all the hallmarks of Ukraine 2022: underestimation of likely resistance, botched military planning and poor morale among barely-trained conscripts. One Chechen commander recalled the Russian forces trying to enter the capital, Grozny, in four columns, with tanks and personnel carriers in parade ground order – one after the other, only six metres apart. In narrow streets they were sitting ducks for Chechen fighters. After heavy casualties the Russians resorted to the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the city, causing thousands of civilian deaths.

At the end of 1996, the Russians cut their losses, and Chechnya remained a base for terrorist operations in the Caucasus and in Russia itself. Near the end of his presidency Yeltsin tried again, putting the operation in the hands of his heir apparent, Vladimir Putin, who mounted a carefully organised campaign in the winter of 1999-2000, learning the lessons of the first war. This soon brought Grozny – now in ruins – under Russian control, although a counter-insurgency operation had to continue until 2009. 

Freedman rounds off the story of Putin’s bid to make Russia great again by looking at the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and at the early months of his invasion of Ukraine. He notes “how much Putin’s own risk calculus changed, from being audacious yet careful in 2014 to being reckless in 2022”. In 2014 “the gathering anti-Russian movement in Kyiv prompted opposing pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea”, which “created secessionist possibilities that were straightforward for Russia to exploit”. A contrived referendum in March 2014 allowed Putin to claim that the people of Crimea overwhelmingly wanted to join Russia, and Western reaction to the annexation was ineffectual.

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Putin was far less successful in exploiting secessionist movements in eastern Ukraine, leading to a messy situation that “left Russia with a de facto annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk” while Ukraine became “almost a de facto part of Nato”, from which it was receiving weapons and other military assistance. Marinating in his imperial fantasies during the Covid-19 pandemic, Putin eventually convinced himself that he could simply take over Ukraine, repeating all the mistakes made in 1994. Like Saddam Hussein in 1991, despite catastrophic failure his regime seems coup-proof and in control of the domestic narrative. But for how long?

The ordering of Freedman’s case studies is hard to follow and some seem overly detailed, but each provides fascinating glimpses into the messy detail of history – belying simple political science formulations. And his big point has applicability way beyond military matters. “Authority is something to be earned, not taken for granted”, and that depends on cultivating trust. This is true for a CEO or a headteacher, a site manager or a union leader, the captain of a sports team or the editor of a newspaper. And, of course, for a new monarch or a rookie prime minister.

Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine
Lawrence Freedman
Allen Lane, 589pp, £30

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